Kishwar Desai |UK warms to King as he fights cancer; welcome to virtual life with the royals

Columnist  | Kishwar Desai

Opinion, Columnists

Royals' virtual presence dominates media, their absence sparks speculation. Can journalism survive without them?

Banknotes carrying a portrait of King Charles III (Image: AP)

What would the media do without royalty? These days their absence is getting more coverage than their presence ever did — and maybe it is preparing us for a future without them?

Or perhaps not — as even when they are not there the media fills in their absence with speculation as to what could have happened to them! And then — as though their presence/ absence is not enough in photographs, documentaries etc. — we also have long running television series which try to replicate their lives, creating yet another world where they are present. Is it a crutch that the British need — or is it something the media falls back on when they want some more “masala”.

In India we got rid of our royalty and then took over their palaces and made them into museums and hotels — and now apart from their occasional appearance as political leaders or heritage buffs — we barely see them. But for the Brits in the UK, the Royals remain a constant looming presence. They are also a reminder of when the Brits ruled the world — and indeed, symbolically, independent countries like Australia still maintain that allegiance.

So it goes beyond the celebrity cult and is also about enduring power — and political significance: The right wing appreciation of royalty persists and triumphs, winning hearts and minds with golden splendour and pretty pictures!
Thus none of the ruling royals are allowed to actually retire into oblivion, nor can they be wicked or misbehave — as then we will find out and not only reprimand them — but also continuously relive that ignominious moment through investigative journalism. This is the only price they have to pay. We place them on a pedestal, allow them to lead unnatural lives in palaces — and then are apparently mystified when they shake the bars of the gilded cage. Thereafter, we spend many years and much money finding out why they misbehaved — indeed if there is one more documentary/film/serial about Princess Diana that uncovers fresh material about her we should not be surprised.

There is no doubt that for the tabloids, at least, there is no better space filler than the royal family. But lately there has been mainly a “virtual” presence of the royals in the news, due to illness — especially of King Charles III. It has been unheard of to have this degree of coverage for a disease which many men suffer from — but it also speaks of the digital age. If he could not be physically present then we can now continuously look forward to his “virtual presence” as he opens thousands of “get well soon cards”. It may not be long before we have AI generated images of a happy royal family waving to us in perpetuity from an AI generated royal balcony. Perhaps that stage is not far….
King Charles is fairly new as the King — and he had been unpopular in the days when Princess Diana died 25 plus years ago. He had to wait till his seventies to succeed to the throne and he needed a serious image makeover. His relationship with Queen Camilla while he was married to Princess Diana had meant that Camilla had to be to be recast as being a nice person, too.

But the news of his ill health has changed all that. Cancer is something people are familiar with as they know someone among their friends or relations who may be in a similar situation. It is serious but not as threatening as it used to be. So yes, a flood of letters with good wishes descended on the monarch. He has bravely promised not to give up his official duties such as reading his red boxes which contain official news and papers to sign! He also has to meet the Prime Minister and his privy council. So he moves between London and Balmoral travelling by helicopter.

All this has been a bonus for Queen Camilla. She has drawn sympathy for Charles’ illness — but in his absence she has had to step in and bestow honours and be seen at functions solo.
As if that was not enough, Kate the Princess of Wales had to have some operation a few months back, which is shrouded in secrecy. This has doubled amount of coverage she gets on the Internet — where the speculation has gone wild about her being in an “induced coma” etc., all of which is being denied by her media team. Unlike other royals — she is still young and glamorous. Her followers on the Internet crosses many millions. What she wears flies off the shelves as she sets the fashion tone, and so her absence has commercial implications as well. Now the public has to worry more — as she will not appear before April…

Recently there was widespread “alarm” when Prince William missed a function for “personal reasons”. The media cannot report on this — and so they are struggling.

We are actually now missing Prince Harry, if the media is to be believed. Prince Harry, like his great Uncle Edward, abandoned England to marry an American divorcee.  

Hmmmm… as I said, perhaps we are just being introduced to a new life with the royals — one in which they have more of a virtual presence than a physical one. Living without them may not be as difficult for most of us — but the biggest conundrum is — what will the media do without them? Can the media survive without the royal family?